Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Friday, October 08, 2004

Gramsci and common sense (prepublication version) - a much shorter version will appear in CRISPP

Towards an Intellectual Reformation: the Critique of Common Sense and the Forgotten Revolutionary Project of Gramscian Theory
Andrew Robinson

The domestication of radical theories is itself a subject of Gramsci’s own research. Gramsci, a self-professed Marxist and a participant in the factory council insurrection in Turin, was in his political writings a trenchant critic of the reduction of Marxism to bourgeois materialism and of the ways in which bourgeois society was able to drag dissenting strands of thought and action back into the capitalist fold. This process, which he termed “transformism”, has recently been given new energy by neo-Gramscian studies of international power relations. However, it would seem that Gramsci himself has been a victim of transformism. It is clear from his Prison Notebooks that Gramsci was opposed both to everyday “common sense”, the philosophy of the masses, and to the manipulative and passivity-inducing effects of elite-dominated politics. He was therefore an advocate of a revolution in everyday life, indeed, one of the first such advocates, many years before Situationism and the “politics of desire” arrived on the scene. When Gramsci writes of the need for an “intellectual and moral reformation” (sometimes mistakenly translated in English as “reform”, despite Gramsci’s frequent allusions to the Reformation as a historical parallel), he has in mind a thoroughgoing transformation and development of people’s ways of thinking and acting in everyday life, a transformation fundamental enough to break the grip of bourgeois ideological formations and to transform the subaltern strata from a passive mass into an active historical force. Reading many texts on Gramsci, however, one is left with the impression that he was simply yet another analyst of political systems and elite politics. This prevents Gramsci from being articulated to a revolutionary project; indeed, it renders some of his insights into processes of discursive power-formation decidedly fatalistic. It is no surprise, therefore, that such readings often occur in the context of a reformist politics. The recovery of Gramsci’s revolutionary message is part of the same process as the recovery of the critique of common sense which has been repressed in most readings of Gramsci.

The approaches I am here criticising for neglecting Gramsci’s concern with revolution in everyday life range across a number of fields. Firstly, there is the school of Gramscian sociology and political theory associated with Stuart Hall, and finding its clearest expression in Roger Simon’s introductory book on Gramsci. This approach uses some of the language of the Prison Notebooks but uses them in ways which fail to distinguish everyday life from the field of elite politics. Furthermore, the Marxism Today tendency with which such authors were associated was a long way from seeking a revolution in everyday life. This tendency was reformist and liquidationist, and in some ways laid the groundwork for what later become New Labour. The domestication of Gramsci through his association with elite manipulation was prepared by a simplification of the concept of hegemony. The distinction between hegemony and transformism was downplayed, with the result that any articulation of mass beliefs, whether active or passive, into political processes was considered a form of “hegemony”. For instance, Anne Showstack Sassoon’s book Gramsci’s Politics portrays organic intellectuals as a stratum of organisers and technocrats (1980:141-2, 147, 149, 170), a portrayal which suggests an elite-led model of politics incompatible with mass activity. Similarly, when Roger Simon discusses ideology, he does not seem to understand the philosophical depth at which the challenge to capitalist ideas is supposed to take place. For instance, he represents Gramsci as a gradualist (17) and he treats common sense, not as a conception of the world to be overcome, but as an ahistorical “field” in which social struggles take place. This blunts the critical edge of Gramsci’s remarks on common sense. When Stuart Hall discusses Gramsci’s concept of philosophy, he puts the concept in inverted commas and uses it to refer to exclusively political outlooks (1983:23. 25, 28), ignoring its matrix in everyday life even while emphasising how it shapes and constrains perceptions. He therefore ends up with a crude conjunctural politicism: ‘[y]ou lose because you lose because you lose’ (Hall 1991:125). This attitude can only lead to a tendency to pander to existing beliefs as a way to maximise conjunctural political advantages.

Authors in this tradition tend to exaggerate the importance of ideology in the narrow sense by assuming that political ideas – for instance, the Thatcherite critique of the welfare state or the Blairite idea of community – necessarily express themselves as organic ideologies. This has led to an emphasis on elite politics as a means to “radical” renewal. Politically, this tendency has proved to be a dead-end. The relaunch of Marxism Today to admit the astounding revelation that Blair is “wrong” was hardly mould-breaking for those of us who had always been opposed to the Labour “modernisers’” pro-capitalist agenda. Worse still, some authors, such as Showstack Sassoon (Beyond Pessimism of the Intellect, 1996), have actually articulated Gramsci to a Blairite political project. The Eurocommunists, with their hostility to mass direct action and their condemnations of the uprisings of the 1960s, have increasingly turned into a simple leftist veil for neo-liberalism. This process has been especially marked in Italy, where the Togliatti tendency has ultimately constructed a new social-democratic party and where the more radical PCI members have split and formed a new party. One of the many harmful effects of Eurocommunism is that it tended to prevent the entry of Gramsci’s views into the more radical movements such as autonomism, which in turn impeded the cross-fertilisation of Gramsci those of the newer perspectives, such as Situationism and schizoanalysis, with which his views have most in common.

This naivety is continued by the tradition of discourse analysis founded by Laclau and Mouffe. Again, political ideologies conceived in terms of the specific beliefs of parties and leaders are assumed to have direct effectivity in everyday life and to construct everyday identities. Hence, for instance, one finds Chantal Mouffe writing of the democratic imaginary as constitutive of contemporary subjectivity, as if in discussing the antinomies of Rawls and Habermas she is at the same time discussing the politics of everyday life. Furthermore, Laclau and Mouffe write as if elements in everyday life are free-floating, and require the authoritative effect of a political master-signifier to gain any social significance. Apart from the problems with such a Lacanian reading of the structure of language, this approach downplays the self-sufficiency of everyday life and assumes it to be dependent on elite politics for its meaning. This misrepresentation places severe limits on the degree to which the Laclauian school of discourse analysis can explore discourse in everyday life, and the extent to which this school can analyse the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of political movements.

Neo-Gramscian I.R. theory is not part of the recuperation of Gramsci’s project as I understand it, because it retains a strong critical edge in relation to global capitalism. I very much sympathise with Morton’s position in the article “On Gramsci” (1999), which suggests that the appropriation of a thinker’s works should seek relevance as well as accuracy. However, neo-Gramscian theory still tends to overlook the importance of everyday life in Gramsci’s theory, instead reverting to an earlier Marxian-Engelsian model of the production process as the generative matrix of social relations. As with the other approaches, there is a tendency to conflate political movements such as trade unions and political parties with ideological formations conceived in terms of everyday identities. As a result, key terms such as “hegemony” are oversimplified – for instance, through a reference to the fatalistic support of trade unions for E.U. enlargement as a “historical bloc”. Furthermore, the research methods used by neo-Gramscians concentrate on elite interviews and neglect research into the everyday processes of subject-formation and the social construction of subaltern passivity. This is not necessarily a problem for neo-Gramscian theory conceived as an analytical project akin to other theories of I.R., but it is a major problem in terms of constructing an alternative to the present system. Again, there seem to be pressures towards exaggeration of the role of political elites and a failure to challenge bourgeois ideology in the further depths of its influence. There is also a tendency to read Gramsci as a realist (e.g. Gill 1993), thereby downplaying the phenomenological aspects of his work.

As a final aside, I would like to draw attention to at least ten pieces, from a variety of perspectives, which suggest, against all the textual evidence, that Gramsci supported common sense, praised it or saw it as a test of the validity of Marxism (Kiernan 1972:67, Kann 1980:266, Ransome 1992:181, Joll 1977:101, Adamson 1978:436, Bellamy 1987:137, Wohl 1979:283, Entwhistle 1979:121, Femia 1989:284, Thompson 1991:10-11), two who see it as the basis from which a new philosophy is to be elaborated (Mouffe 1979:186, Williams 1960:593), and two who treat it as a permanent sphere in which conflict occurs (Simon 1991, Hall 1986:36), as well as seven who see good sense as consciousness of direct, unmediated experience or who replace the common sense/good sense binary with an ideology/experience binary (Nun 1996:205, 226, Williams 1960:592, Showstack Sassoon 1996b:161, 1980:153, Mardle 1977:140, Haralambos 1995:532, Karabel 1976:143, Entwhistle 1979:21-2). Boggs (1976:65) and Wohl (1979:197, 199) interpret the idea of “organic intellectuals” as a requirement that intellectuals be subordinate to common sense. In contrast to the exegetical evidence presented below, I can find only two passages (SPN 145, FSPN 128) where Gramsci gives positive connotations to the term “common sense”, and Gramsci explicitly rejects the idea of direct, unmediated experience as an element in thought (SPN 461-2). Such a pervasive phenomenon of misreading suggests that the repression of the elements I am emphasising runs very deep in the literature on Gramsci. Jose Nun’s essay (1996), which provides perhaps the only full-length article dealing with common sense, actually criticises Gramsci on the grounds that attacking common sense is undemocratic (1996:216). This suggests he has not registered the significance of Gramsci’s theory of oppression for issues of oppression, resistance and voice. Another common reading is to attempt to distance Gramsci’s concept of common sense from the usual meaning of the term in English (Boothman FSPN 556-7, Nun 226, Nemeth 1980:93). This is despite the fact that some of the core aspects of common sense Gramsci specifies, such as naïve realism, naturalisation, incoherence, uncritical desires for fixed certainties, neophobia and manipulability, are very much part of the phenomenon usually described as “common sense” in English.

The approach I am taking here should not be considered as an essentialist attempt to establish the views of the “real” Gramsci, and I freely admit to downplaying certain aspects of Gramsci’s thought (especially the authoritarian and work-fetishist strands). However, I shall adopt a mainly exegetical approach, in order to demonstrate that the strands I advocate are indeed present in Gramsci’s work. Because these elements are largely absent from the secondary literature (at least in the fields discussed above, though less so in social history, subaltern studies and cultural studies), I am aiming to demonstrate the existence of a “forgotten” Gramsci whose views open the possibility to more revolutionary and transformative readings of his work. I would go as far as to suggest that this “forgotten” Gramsci has a contemporary relevance which other parts of Gramsci’s work lack, particularly as regards deepening one’s understanding of the operation of oppressive discourse and the ways of effecting substantial social transformation.


If neo-Gramscianism is too classically Marxian and Gramscian political theory is too post-Marxist, where is one to locate Gramsci? One can see Gramsci’s critique of common sense as emerging out of a critique and reinterpretation of particular elements in Marx’s thought. The Marxian text is itself very diverse and contains a number of threads. One of these – the most widely followed by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike – attached an overarching explanatory importance to production. Ideology was then conceived as an outgrowth of production, an epiphenomenon. As a result, struggles at the point of production were conceived as primary over other social struggles. This model has been expanded and amended in various ways over time. Many of its adherents allow some degree of autonomy to ideology and other superstructures, while some introduce the idea that ideology as a process of subject-formation is itself part of the production process. However, this approach has always caused political difficulties. Firstly, where does the determinism of production end and the possibility of emancipatory agency begin? If the transition to socialism is seen as emerging from capitalism’s own development, the only political conclusion can be a pessimism which reaffirms the status quo. If on the other hand some kind of agency is introduced into the process, the theory is left in a position of self-contradiction.

It is this problem which has led some former Marxists such as Ernesto Laclau to abandon Marxism for post-Marxism. This is not, however, the only option. Marx’s texts are looser than is often imagined, and the idea of “production” sometimes functions as a synonym for broader concepts of life-activity and creativity, sometimes termed “sensuous activity” or “human practice”. In relation to this strand, which can be traced back to Marx’s earliest writings, capitalism is to be understood phenomenologically, as a particular arrangement of creative activities in everyday life. More precisely, it is to be understood as the repressive subsumption of creative activities into a structure of subordination. This tendency, which can also be linked to Deleuze and Guattari’s politics of desire, is the strand of Marx’s thought on which Gramsci draws.

Far from sticking to the idea of the primacy of production, Gramsci’s main starting-point is the idea of “conceptions of the world and of life”, “modes of thought and action”, or, in his unusual vocabulary, “philosophies”. Instead of a succession of modes of production, Gramsci refers to history as ‘the struggle of systems,… the struggle between ways of viewing reality’ (cited Nemeth 167). Instead of referring to modes of production or productive systems, Gramsci tends to use terms such as ‘ethico-political system’ and ‘system of social relations’ (SPN 119). History is therefore reconceived as a series of different ways of thinking and acting, each succeeded by another which is its immanent critique and transcendent metalanguage. Historical conflicts involve a clash of ethico-political principles of one kind or another, and unless one inquires into how one such set of principles defeats another, one can only describe historical events from the outside and cannot draw causal conclusions (FSPN 359).

Everyone has a conception of the world of some kind, and this means that ‘[a]ll men [sic] are philosophers’, because in ‘the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatsoever, in “language”, there is contained a specific conception of the world’ (SPN 323). This also means that everyone is in a certain sense intellectually and politically active, promoting ways of thinking and acting which promote particular ethical and/or normative ideas. Gramsci calls his version of Marxism an “absolute historicism” and “absolute humanism”, adding that it ‘puts the will at the base of philosophy’ (SPN 345). ‘[T]he unity of theory and practice is not just a matter of mechanical fact, but a part of the historical process’ (SPN 333). Theory and ideology are therefore central to understanding social phenomena. Every philosophy gives rise to its own ethic, and each ethic motivates adherents to construct a particular social formation which expresses it. Gramsci does not downplay economics completely, since he gives it great importance as an existential sphere in which conceptions of the world emerge and are expressed. However, he denies the view that economic changes have a direct change on social organisation. Between the economic level and the level of elite and mobilisatory politics (the “politico-military” level), there is always the “ethico-political” level of the formation, articulation and transformation of conceptions of the world. Transformative action occurs through the formation of a collective will, and this is a process which necessarily occurs on the ethico-political level. For instance, according to Gramsci, economic crisis cannot directly cause revolutions. It can only alter the balance of influence between different conceptions of the world (SPN 184). ‘[I]t is not the economic structure which directly determines political action, but it is the interpretation of it and of the so-called laws of its development’ (cited Bobbio 33). Economic change is important in revolutions, but it is not the driving force. Rather, it occurs largely as an expression of changes in philosophy as expressed in social relations (SPN 133). It should also be noted that Gramsci downplayed the idea of ideology as “false consciousness”(SPN 326-7), preferring to see ideas and beliefs as the articulation of needs and feelings into social projects.

Nevertheless, there are different kinds of theory in existence. Some are carefully thought out an express a conception of the world which is integral, expansive and capable of becoming hegemonic. Others are subaltern, and rely to one degree or another on one’s subordination to a ruling class. For instance, the badly thought-out philosophies embedded in common sense render the masses subordinate to the influence of ruling classes, and the partial focus established in economic-corporate ideas such as the trade-unionist conception of workers’ interests are insufficient to mount a generalised challenge to the capitalist framework within which these interests themselves arise. The struggle between ways of viewing reality is not a struggle between equals, and for Gramsci, emancipation in practice must be preceded by ideational emancipation. While all people are philosophers, there is a great difference between coherent, properly-considered critical views and the confused and contradictory amalgam that is common sense. Thus, people should be persuaded that, since they necessarily operate as philosophers, they should engage coherently with theoretical issues, and not succumb to the ideological and stultifying influences of capitalism (e.g. SPN 28). A crucial point in analysing others’ philosophies is that their “true” philosophy is not necessarily the one they consciously and/or publicly affirm. It is the one they act on in practice (FSPN 383). The openness involved in Gramsci’s analysis of philosophy creates a model of collective action broader than and preferable to those rendered possible by economistic Marxisms and by rational choice theory. For instance, Gramsci portrays class solidarity as arising organically from particular philosophical attachments (SPN 181).

Classes or social groups are for Gramsci defined primarily not by their economic position but by their mode of thought and action. ‘In acquiring one’s conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting’ (SPN 324). Everyone has a “party”, in the sense of a group promoting a particular conception of the world (cited Showstack Sassoon 1980:240), and all people are “political beings” and “legislators”, encouraging others to act in particular ways by establishing, reinforcing and acting on ‘norms’ (SPN 265-6; c.f. SPN 9). In other words, it is groups of people united by particular conceptions of the world, not classes in an economic sense, which are the main social forces on the ethico-political level (which is the most important level for transformative politics and for general socio-cultural analysis). This sometimes leads to misleading moments in Gramsci’s writing, with terms such as “ruling class/stratum”, “leading class/stratum” and “subaltern strata” being open to various readings, depending on whether they are taken to be ethico-political or economic concepts. Another point should also be made about Gramsci’s terminology. In analysing ways of thinking and acting, Gramsci uses a variety of terms, but many of these are equivalent. I shall follow what I take to be Gramsci’s use and use the terms “philosophy”, “ideology”, “conception of the world”, “mode of thought and action” and “world-view” interchangeably. All of these terms refer to the general way of thinking and acting which determines the specificity of a social class, social group or historical formation.

Gramsci states that ‘[t]he first step in emancipating oneself from political and social slavery is… freeing the mind’ (cited Ransome 180). A new society cannot simply be constructed in practice. Rather, it must already be ‘ideally active’ in the minds of those fighting for change (SCW 39). Subaltern strata remain in a position of subordination partly because their conceptions of the world remain within the framework set by the ruling class. In order to become autonomous and thereby able to change the world, the subaltern strata need to develop a new conception of the world which is not dependent on ruling-class ideas. Gramsci refers to this process as “intellectual and moral reformation”. Social change can only happen when progressive groups ‘work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the population’; it is this above all which changes the ‘ideological panorama’ of an age (SPN 340). Hence, ‘every revolution has been preceded by an intense labour of criticism’, including ‘the spread of ideas among masses of men who are at first resistant’ (SPW1 11-12). Every revolution is preceded by a change in philosophical conceptions such as the conception of humanity (SPN 356; c.f. SCW 249, SPN 394). (This interpretation is in line with recent research into the English/British and French Revolutions). In forming new political movements, ‘great importance is assumed by the question of “language”, i.e. the collective attainment of a single cultural “climate”’ (FSPN 156). The creation of a new world-view is equivalent to the creation of a new type of political and civil society (SPN 381). When he analyses social movements such as the factory councils, his emphasis is on their effect on intellectual development. For instance, the factory councils were important because they ‘gave the masses a “theoretical” consciousness’ (SPN 198) and the role of Gramsci’s version of the party is ‘intellectual and moral reform[ation]’ (SPN 133). Despite the emphasis Gramsci places on the unity of a collective will, he also presumes it will express forms of cultural difference (FSPN 115).

The division between everyday life and elite politics is very important when one considers Gramsci’s discussions of “organic ideology”. Far from endorsing an Althusserian model of smooth ideological production processes, Gramsci portrays the formation of organic ideologies as a constant tension between active wills and projects embedded in different political and social movements. Political propaganda does not enter a void; it enters into a situation where conceptions of the world and cultural hierarchies already operate, and its role is rearticulation and dissection of existing ideas (SCW 33). Furthermore, everyday life is the site of the crucial struggle around phenomena of activity and passivity. Ruling-class power does not rely on the hegemonic mobilisation of the subaltern strata, but on their being kept passive through processes such as transformism and actual violence.

However, the resultant relation of domination is incomplete. Since everyone is involved in philosophical and conceptual activity related to their existential and material situation, ruling-class conceptions of the world rarely penetrate in their entirety into subaltern strata. Gramsci draws a distinction between belief-systems which are “organic”, i.e. lived directly within actual social relations, and those which are “arbitrary” or “superficial”, being held without emotional commitment in the context of purely formal relations. ‘One must… distinguish between… historically organic ideologies… and ideologies that are arbitrary, rationalistic, or “willed”’ (SPN 376-7). One might refer to organic ideologies as containing a strong element of libidinal investment and as being a mobilisation of desire, whereas superficial ideologies have a mediated and weak relation to desire and lack social actuality for this reason. Because they meet psychological needs and play a crucial organising (meaning-producing and activity-inducing) role, organic ideologies have an important historical place (SPN 377), equivalent to that of material forces. Organic ideologies can only be changed or overcome by critical activity, and do not simply give way to rationally-conceived systems of thought (SPN 455). Although they rarely have the coherence of philosophers’ philosophies, is only organic and not arbitrary ideologies which have an actual effect on the world. A specialised philosophy or ideology can only become historically effective if it can incorporate itself in reality as if it were an expression of it (SPN 201; c.f. FSPN 75). The historical role of a philosophy can only be assessed through its practical effects, broadly defined (SPN 346), and organicity is the only criterion of the “realism” of beliefs (SPN 172). There is an irony, however, that the highly abstract forms of continental philosophy are more likely to raise the intellectual level than more immediately practical philosophies such as pragmatism (SPN 373).

It is in the context of this distinction that the better-known contrast between organic and traditional intellectuals gains its meaning. The role of an organic intellectual is to ‘change, correct or perfect… conceptions of the world… and thus to change… norms of conduct’ (SPN 344). They are supposed to take particular elements in mass beliefs – the elements Gramsci terms “good sense” – and shape these into a ‘precise and decisive will’ and a ‘clear and ever-present awareness’ (SPN 333). They should feel the ‘elementary passions’ of the people and aim to develop these feelings into a coherent and rational form (FSPN 418, 450), developing good sense (see below) into a ‘precise and decisive will’ and a ‘coherent… ever-present awareness’ (SPN 333). For Gramsci, ‘[t]hat masses of men be led to evaluate in a co-ordinated way the present reality is, philosophically speaking, a more important and original fact than an isolated philosophic genius’s discovery of a certain truth’. Organic intellectuals are to ‘make the people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses’ (SPN 251), to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of people (SPN 340) and to ‘construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make possible the intellectual progress of the mass’ (SPN 332-3). This bloc is not to be constructed by subordinating intellectuals to common sense, to which it is the ‘antithesis’, but by raising the intellectual level of the masses. According to Gramsci, Marxism ‘affirms the need for contact between the intellectuals and the “simple”… not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass’ (SPN 332-3; c.f. SPN 397). In one passage, Gramsci emphasises the importance of learning both to feel and to know. ‘If the relationship between intellectuals and people-nation… is provided by an organic cohesion in which feeling-passion becomes understanding and thence knowledge (not mechanically but in a way that is alive)… then and only then… can the shared life be realised which alone is a social force – with the creation of the “historical bloc”’ (SPN 418). When a new philosophy becomes organic, its adherents form a new “collective will” or social force.

The role of organic intellectuals is to engage in a two-way dialogue which is sympathetic to subaltern people’s needs (SCW 215) but which avoids succumbing to the temptation to glorify existing beliefs. They are to encourage a process in which the teacher is also a learner (SPN 350) and encourage contact and interchange between intellectual and “mass” beliefs (SCW 215). A major part of the educative process is to involve the encouragement of critical and analytical abilities, of ‘thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does’, the ‘exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas, habits of connecting causes and effects’ and so on (SCW 25). ‘[W]ays of thinking and acting are acquired and not innate and… once acquired, their correct use corresponds to a professional qualification. Not to possess them, not to be aware of possessing them, not to raise the problem of acquiring them… is like claiming to be able to build an automobile [then a very new technology] while knowing that one must rely on the workshop and tools of a village blacksmith’ (SCW 383). The aim to create ‘a new culture on a new social base’ raises instantly the problem of the development of logical and conceptual abilities (SCW 383). Only with extensive logical abilities can one engage in effective activity (SCW 26-7), because otherwise one is open to emotional manipulation (FSPN 302-3). Logical and analytical abilities, especially the ability to work with concepts (FSPN 151-2), analytical categories (SPN 369) and abstractions applied to specificities (SPN 38), are necessary to ‘correct distortions in common sense ways of thinking’ (FSPN 301). Gramsci views social power as primarily linguistic and conceptual (SPN 133, 218) and suggests that new developments in science nearly always result from new ways of using language (FSPN 426). New strata establish new uses of language, often in defiance of formal grammar, and linguistic fluidity is crucial for the expression of new needs and truths (SCW 31). The more complex is one’s language, the more complex and subtle is one’s worldview (SPN 325). However, language does not arise in a vacuum, and has a ‘living source to which it can refer’. Gramsci also suggests that changes in language can only occur from the bottom upwards (SCW 29-30). Although its external form changes only slowly, the meaning of language changes often (SCW 195), through what is known in deconstruction as catachrestic or writerly readings (SPN 449-50). Therefore, learning to use concepts and language in effective and transformative ways is a crucial part of a Gramscian pedagogical project. Gramsci also calls for activity ‘to raise the intellectual tone and level of the mass’ (cited Williams 1973:593), ‘elaborating, making to think clearly, [and] transforming’ (cited Merrington 1968:162), and spreading critical activity (SPN 321).

The envisaged change is to be deep-rooted and wide-ranging, including new ways of thinking and living, a new morality and philosophy, new forms of language, new philosophical discourses and a new integral philosophy (SCW 41-3, SPN 357, 366). Every new conception of the world creates a new language, contributing to the development of the broader language by inventing new terms and reworking and metaphorically re-using old ones (SCW 414). The process of change can only occur as a ‘molecular’ process whereby people gradually free themselves from constraining ideas and influences, but it culminates in a moment of ‘catharsis’ which involves a decisive break with ruling-class ideas. In a sense, Marxists pursuing Gramsci’s project are only ‘renovating and making “critical” an already existing activity’ (SPN 331), since everyone is already a philosopher of sorts. However, one should not underestimate the extent of the transformation Gramsci envisages in everyday beliefs.

One can conceive of Gramsci’s revolutionary project as something akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “becoming other”. Workers and others are to break down or unlearn their attachments to existing dominant ideologies and are to reconstruct themselves as a historical force which did not previously exist. The transformation Gramsci envisages in everyday beliefs is more far-reaching than that proposed by almost any other Marxist. Gramsci is advocating the thoroughgoing overcoming of common sense and the emergence, as an organic ideology, of a new conception of the world which is entirely independent of bourgeois ideology. In this sense, revolutionary politics and pedagogy, and also philosophy and political research, become exercises in seeking what Deleuze and Guattari term “lines of flight” – ways of passing from a situation of entrapment within the present system to a situation of freedom from it, by releasing trapped energies and developing new forms of creativity.

Compared to this standard, it is hard to see Thatcherism, Blairism or a pro-E.U. elite consensus as organic or hegemonic, or as a national-popular collective will or a historical bloc. Clearly all these phenomena rely on a distance from everyday life and leave mass passivity largely unthreatened. Even fascism was not hegemonic in Gramsci’s terms, because it relied too heavily on the organisational inducement of passivity. On the other hand, the movements which according to Gramsci, such as the Jacobins and the Reformation (on Gramsci’s readings), achieved hegemony are notable for their activity within everyday life, as movement which actually mobilised large numbers of people to take action by persuading them to adopt new ways of thinking and acting. An organic or hegemonic social movement as conceived by Gramsci has a wide-ranging energising effect on its supporters and adherents, finding its expression in the emergence of a new culture and a new way of thinking. To show the depth of active energy a movement must release to count as hegemonic, consider Gramsci’s remarks on art. An organic or expansive movement is ‘irresistible’. Therefore, ‘it will find its artists’ without the need for artificial manoeuvres. If it fails to do so, this shows that ‘the world in question was artificial and fictitious’ (SCW 109). This new art is to come ‘from deep within’, impacting strongly on feelings, conceptions and relationships (SCW 207) and broadening horizons in such a way as to generate new creative possibilities for artists (SCW 98). A movement does not become hegemonic simply because it manages to manipulate passive masses into supporting it, nor because it manages to construct cross-class alliances at the level of elite politics. Indeed, a movement which requires an organisational dynamic to grow is by definition not expansive (SCW 211). Concepts such as the “national-popular” are defined in terms of their link to passionate commitments (SCW 122-3).

The elimination of the element of feeling and deep commitment from key Gramscian concepts, and their rendition as simple analytical tools describing particular externally-observable social phenomena, amounts to a domestication of Gramsci into the bourgeois-led households of analytical philosophy and positivistic social research. It involves the incorporation of a schematic approach of which Gramsci was very critical, which “explains” facts by means of laws which are simply more abstract renditions of the facts (SPN 461-2), and perhaps even the development of ‘philosophical Esperanto’ (FSPN 303-4), a technical language which is developed in a way disconnected from organic ideologies and which tends to be confined to a grouping of traditional intellectuals. Rather, Gramsci’s version of science requires the creation of an expanded conception of life (SPN 244-5) through the development of new ‘logical connections’ and ‘mental schema[ta]’ (FSPN 402). To qualify as science, a political view must tend to become organic (SPN 201) and must express itself in an active, mobilising moment (FSPN 294). A new philosophy needs a new language, but it is important that this language be able to express passionately-held beliefs and commitments, so that it is not in Gramsci’s sense “arbitrary”. It also needs to arise in the context of an aspiration to ideological organicity.

In order to achieve an ideational change, a new philosophy needs to take on existing mass beliefs. The subaltern strata already have their own philosophy/ies, which Gramsci terms common sense. He is deeply critical of common sense, accusing it of being confused, contradictory and neophobe and of encouraging various kinds of oppressive discourse. It is ‘uncritical and largely unconscious’ (SPN 322), dogmatic, anti-dialectical (SPN 435), ‘crudely neophobe and conservative’ (SPN 423). It is a ‘chaotic aggregate of different conceptions’ (SPN 422) which ‘cannot be reduced to coherence within an individual consciousness, let alone collective consciousness’ (SPN 326; c.f. 324, 419), and it is so contradictory that one can find in it ‘anything one likes’ (SPN 422), leaving adherents open to manipulation by “directive” figures in their immediate environment (SPN 323-4), particularly by authoritarians who use force and deceit to create an illusion of a unity within common sense (SPN 326). (One could interpret the rise of the tabloid press and of populist political movements in this way). To appeal to common sense as a proof of anything is a nonsense (SPN 423), and the generalisation of common sense judgements leads to arbitrary conclusions (SPN 345). Large parts of subalterns’ life-worlds are territorialised and constructed by dominant elites, and this often has a profound effect on their identities and attitudes. It can lead to fatalism and the naturalisation of the status quo. Gramsci criticises common sense for assuming that what exists is natural and for reifying institutions. Although much action is indeed habitual, the realisation that it is social rather than natural in origin is a prerequisite for transformative practice (SPN 157-8, FSPN 15), and so is the overcoming of the common fetishisation of society as a phantasmagorical abstract being (SPN 187). Far from being natural or spontaneous, common sense is a ‘primitive historical acquisition’ (SPN 199), reflecting social relations and the influence of particular organic intellectuals. It includes strong tendencies towards fatalism, naturalisation and “naïve” or “vulgar” realism (e.g. cited McInnes 14; SPN 420, 441), and it is often auto-affirming, resisting critique. It tends to neuter critical ideas which are able to enter it (e.g. FSPN 352) and is ‘eager for fixed certainties’ (SPN 435). Its illusion-inducing effects bar effective social analysis (cited Femia 1979:483) and it involves a ‘borrowing of conceptions’ which binds people intellectually to the leading class (cited Merrington 1968:160). Appeals to common sense in philosophy and theory have ‘a certain “reactionary” significance’ (SPN 441-2), often being used as an excuse for dogmatism and for ignoring critical refutations (SPN 67-8). Gramsci calls instead for ‘an effort through which the spirit frees itself from common sense’ (FSPN 421-2). Although it is not singular and varies between different individuals and classes, common sense is hard to escape, and it exists ‘even in distinguished brains’ (cited Wohl 283).

It is important that philosophical engagement take the form of a critique of common sense (SPN 419). One should be careful not to encourage its uncritical tendencies (SPN 420), and Gramsci is highly critical of authors he thinks support or tail common sense (e.g. SPN 197, 199, 422). For Gramsci, the importance of Marxism breaking with common sense, explaining rather than endorsing it, is the decisive issue in relation to the question of whether Marxism can become hegemonic (SPN 441-2). The threat of relapse into common sense is ever-present and is to be resisted. For instance, one must resist ‘the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted’ (SPN 43), and one must avoid a situation where ‘vulgar common sense has imposed itself on science and not vice versa’ (cited Entwhistle 1979:27). The reinforcement of common sense has the effect of impeding intellectual development (FSPN 353). Hence, one must avoid such a reinforcement, even while being careful to treat common sense respectfully to avoid entrenching it (SPN 179).

In explaining the pervasiveness of common sense, Gramsci invokes several factors. On the one hand, it meets certain emotional needs by providing a force of moral resistance. On the other, it is encouraged by the ruling class’s tendency to hold down the intellectual development of the subaltern strata. For instance, transformism operates to prevent organic intellectuals emerging among the subaltern strata. Gramsci’s main argument, however, is that subaltern people ‘lack the conceptual tools’ (Femia 1975) to formulate an alternative or to engage critically with new ideas. This is a problem which must be overcome, however. Whenever a collective will comes into being, ‘there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogeneous – in other words, coherent and systematic – philosophy’ (SPN 419). The role of Marxism is to change the ‘popular mentality’ (SPN 348), generating ‘a new ethical and intellectual unity which has surpassed common sense and become critical’ (cited Merrington 1968:160). To perform this role, Marxism itself must change, becoming a philosophy and a way of thinking about human life, rather than simply an analytical perspective (cited Paggi 128). It must also be integral, bearing on all aspects of life, without thereby becoming oppressive. In contrast, Gramsci denounces Catholicism for its inability to provide an integral morality. ‘An integral Catholic… who applied the Catholic norms in every act of his life, would seem a monster’, and this is ‘the severest… criticism of Catholicism’ (SPN 351). Perhaps one could similarly use this critique against others: a consistent Thatcherite who treats all others as resources, a consistent Blairite who has no existence apart from “the community”, a consistent I.R. realist who really lives by the norms of a Hobbesian state of nature and a consistent Rawlsian who really does put justice before other goods whenever they conflict would surely seem every bit as “monstrous”, at least from a sufficiently critical perspective, and most probably from their own.

There is an implicit but underdeveloped theme in Gramsci’s work regarding the relationship between activity and passivity, an emphasis which is more widespread in Gramsci’s work, and more theoretically interesting, than the much-touted reading of hegemony as “consent”. It is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s contrast between active and reactive desire. Basically, Gramsci seems to assume that hegemonic movements operate by way of active and positive forces, whereas transformism and other forms of domination achieve a more limited subsumption of their opponents by means of passive and negative emotions such as fatalism and fear. Gramsci sees mass passivity as a major force in history, and ‘what comes to pass… is due not so much to the initiative of the active few, as to the indifference, the absenteeism of the many’ (SPW1 17). Passivity and sluggishness arise because of, and also reinforce, fatalism and the fetishisation of the present system, and are also linked to the contradictions within common sense, which prevent it motivating a clear and decisive will (e.g. SCW 126-7). When people become active, this has the effect of producing crises and revolutionary situations (SPN 210). Parallel to this theme are the theme of raising and holding down the intellectual level of the masses and the theme of individuating the masses, giving ‘a personality to the amorphous mass element’ (SPN 340), as opposed to turning them into trained gorillas (e.g. SPN 309-10). For instance, common sense is to be criticised because it is ‘mechanically imposed’ by one’s social environment, preventing one from playing a role in shaping one’s life-world and oneself (SPN 323-3), in contrast to consciously-adopted philosophies (SPN 360). One therefore faces the choice between being subordinate to one’s environment or consciously and critically working out one’s own philosophy (SPN 323-4). In this sense, Gramsci’s analysis is deeply normative, assessing social relations in terms of their release or suppression of creative energies. The radical implications of this analysis are only held back by Gramsci’s authoritarian tendencies in his discussions of psychology, tendencies which add austere and workaholic aspects to his theory. One should note in this respect the openness of the common sense/good sense distinction and its rearticulability to projects distinct from Gramsci’s own. For instance, Gramsci’s typification of ideas of overcoming bestial and elemental passions (i.e. repression of desire) as good sense (SPN 328) arises from his attachment to an alternative ideology containing such elements. If the alternative is constructed differently, the boundary between common sense and good sense changes.

In any case, it is clear that an analysis of the balance of social forces in a society is incomplete if it only examines the active groups. It is as important, indeed more important, to examine the extent and effect of mass passivity, and the exact intellectual and organising relationship between the mass (passive or active) and the various active and specialised groupings (political parties, trade unions, etc.). A hegemonic movement stands out because it is able to construct a collective will which is active and which is based on “direction” (intellectual influence) rather than “domination” (control through fear, ignorance, patronage, etc.). Transformist systems, passive revolutions and totalitarian regimes are all instances of the second type, and they necessarily rely on keeping the masses passive (perhaps by absorbing or eliminating organic intellectuals, by closing spaces which could be used for the development of new social forms, by using corporatism to hold back aspirations, etc.). Transformism, for instance, involves the metaphorical decapitation of political movements through the displacement of their leaders and intellectuals into the dominant system, a process which removes the groups they lead from politics (SPN 59). Gramsci’s contrast between the Jacobin revolution, which he thought was hegemonic, and the Risorgimento, which was not, shows the distinction between hegemony and domination very clearly. Gramsci says of the leaders of the Risorgimento that they ‘did not wish to “lead” anybody, that is, they did not wish to concord their interests and aspirations with the interests and aspirations of other groups. They wished to “dominate”, and not to “lead”’ (SPN 104-5). In relation to such concepts, it is clear that most contemporary regimes, especially those linked to the capitalist world system, do not even aspire to hegemony. However, one can perhaps refer to certain popular political movements with mass mobilisation (e.g. the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela) as well as some directly revolutionary movements (e.g. the Zapatistas) as to some degree hegemonic. While bourgeois politicians tend simply to rearticulate common sense so as to achieve manipulative goals and manufacture passivity, any substantial political change (even a very limited one such as is occurring in Venezuela) requires substantive active mobilisation, and a fully social revolution requires a critique powerful enough to overcome common sense as a whole.

Indeed, the grammar of the concept of hegemony, the most used and least understood term in Gramsci’s work, is itself revealing. It occurs in Gramsci’s work in at least three different binaries. Firstly, it is used as a synonym for “direction” and counterposed to “domination” and to its sub-types (coercion and transformism). Secondly, it is contrasted to sectional and economic-corporate kinds of ideology. In this sense, it expresses the idea of a deeply-held, wide-ranging organic ideology, as distinct from a narrower set of claims focused on immediate economic interests. On the hegemonic as distinct from the economic-corporate and classist levels, questions are posed in universal terms, and deal with the whole superstructure of society and not only with economic issues (SPN 181). When two groups both pose questions on the hegemonic level, this leads to a conflict between two autonomously-defined social groups, rather than the subsumption of one within the other’s system. There is another kind of crisis in which the influence of ruling-class ideology is weakened, but no alternative conception of the world emerges. The ruling class no longer has the intellectual resources to mobilise mass support and increasingly exercises only domination, not direction. I would suggest that it is this kind of conflict for which Gramsci reserves the term “organic crisis”, and that, in this sense, many of the crises often associated with this term, such as the 1970s collapse of social-democracy, do not run deeply enough into mass beliefs to qualify for this label.

According to Gramsci, the social position of an ideology is a result of whether it has its own philosophy or is subordinate to a larger one (SPN 157). A hegemonic world-view contains its own social vision elaborated from the impulses of a particular social group, whereas a class with an economic-corporate conception pursues its interests and impulses within a framework set (and limited) by another class. Whereas partial or economic-corporate conceptions create parties which tend to seek concessions within the existing system, integral philosophies tend to create integral states (i.e. new kinds of society) (FSPN 34, 37). In order to be hegemonic in this sense, a philosophy must have undergone sufficient qualitative development and to have become a new conception of the world. In this sense, hegemony is equivalent to organicity, expansivity, integrality and autonomy.

It is also used in a binary with subalternity. In Gramsci’s vocabulary, a subordinate group is subjected to domination, and a subaltern group is controlled even more deeply, by means of its partial acceptance of another group’s conception of the world. This is particularly the case if the subaltern group accepts the other group’s ideas fatalistically, without an active hegemony and a tendency to raise the intellectual level. Gramsci argues that ‘fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by a real and active will when it is in a weak position’, and which, lacking its own conception of the world and trapped in dual consciousness, expresses itself in a ‘shamefaced manner’ (SPN 336-7). It is a result of mechanistic philosophies which attempt to render human relations peremptorily predictable (SPN 187, 437).

Common sense operates as a mode of entrapment which ties the subaltern strata to the ruling class. Nevertheless, some parts of subaltern conceptions of the world escape dominant philosophies and form a node of resistant ideas and themes within subaltern strata. Gramsci terms these elements “good sense”. Although “good sense” is minimal and insufficient to construct a new philosophy, Gramsci sees it as a route through which dissident ideas might enter and transform the conceptions of the world held by the subaltern strata. (SPN 326-7). It is an embryonic autonomous conception of the world, but one which appears Gramsci portrays good sense sometimes as an amalgam of good ideas which just happen to have sneaked into common sense, and sometimes as a nascent worldview developed in engagement with one’s actual circumstances, particularly at work. Subaltern people superficially affirm ruling-class beliefs and think they are acting on them, as indeed they often are in periods of passivity. But good sense, which is often ‘kept hidden for fear of common sense’ (FSPN 557), is actually in contradiction with common sense, so that one can even say that workers and others have two consciousnesses or ideologies (SPN 333). Good sense operates as a critique of common sense from within, providing a route into common sense for critical and Marxist conceptions. It is not, however, a full philosophy in its own right. For instance, it tends to be negative rather than positive (cited Boggs 1976:71). Its main role is as the starting point of what Deleuze and Guattari would term a “line of flight”, as a kind of hole in the fence of common sense through which workers and others can escape into Marxism. It is a starting-point rather than an end-point of transformation, and it is to be ‘educated’ and developed into a critical and coherent world-view (SPN 168-9). However, in spite of its incompleteness, Gramsci praises it for its progressive role. ‘[T]he beginnings of the new world, rough and jagged though they always are, are better than the passing away of the world in its death-throes and the swan-song that it produces’ (SPN 343). An example of good sense is a generalised but amorphous hostility to signores or bosses (SPN 272-3). Because of good sense, Marxism need not take the doomed path of simply confronting mass beliefs. There is an element in mass beliefs which can be ‘educated’ and developed into a critical and coherent world-view (SPN 198-9).

It is important that the new conception of the world be organic, expansive, integral and autonomous. Expansivity occurs when a belief-system exerts a magnetic force of attraction on ever-growing strata. Integrality and autonomy occur when it is not dependent on ideas smuggled into it, consciously or unconsciously, from the dominant class’s ideologies (c.f. Nemeth 50). Gramsci is confident that Marxism, or “the philosophy of praxis”, can play such a role, offering access to ‘a peak inaccessible to the enemy camp’ (SPN 462), so that ‘in politics, the “war of position”, once won, is won decisively’ (SPN 239). It is important to view Gramsci’s supposed alliance politics in the light of this pursuit of autonomy. The “war of position” is to be fought not on the politico-military but on the ethico-political level, as a way of altering the balance of forces in a way which would render ruling-class power unable to survive a direct assault or “war of movement”. This is implied when Gramsci draws a distinction between cultural changes, ‘which are slow and gradual’, with political revolutions which may be rapid and explosive (SCW 418-19). Gramsci opposed economic-corporate ideologies, not because they separated the working class from the rest of society, but because they concentrated on interests within this society and did not go far enough towards escaping from the ideological tentacles of the society itself. Hegemony is necessarily based, not on class interest, but on a deeper commitment to a particular conception of the world. However, a new conception of the world must be radically autonomous of bourgeois ideology, and this rules out the kind of “rainbow alliance” politics which draw workers’ and radical movements into alliances with liberals and moderates around a populist or ethically abstract agenda. One should think less, therefore, of an alliance of Eurocommunists, “realo” Greens and social-democrats as the route to a Gramscian hegemony, and more of an alliance of autonomist Marxists, deep greens and anarchists in opposition to global capitalism.

Gramsci would almost certainly have viewed Eurocommunism and the Marxism Today tendency as a step in the wrong direction, a step towards liquidationism and transformism, and would have preferred even the clumsier Marxist determinism of the various small Marxist sects to this kind of prostration before the bourgeoisie. The greatest hope today for a new conception of the world and a new collective will lies with the global anti-capitalist movement, although the exact process of emergence of the “other world” so often declared to be possible cannot be as smooth and unipolar as Gramsci continued to hope. Gramsci gives little reason for assuming that social change must come about through the formation of a singular collective will rather than an interlinked set of rhizomatic movements expressing diverse and even incommensurable conceptions of the world, united in their opposition to the oppressive logics of capitalism. Gramsci’s emphasis on singularity is linked to the authoritarian strands which are the weakest element in his thought and which appear to arise from his relative ignorance of psychological issues (which is manifest despite the strong psychological elements in his conception of politics). Nevertheless, the pedagogic element Gramsci emphasises is of huge and often downplayed importance in preventing the transformist recuperation of this movement and creating a new society which is “ideally active” and which operates in the prefigurative activities of activists fighting for change.


To conclude, therefore, it is important to restore to readings of Gramsci’s work an element of commitment to a revolution in everyday life and to radical transformations in popular belief-systems. The bulk of this piece has been exegetical, but I would also emphasise that the elements I am stressing in Gramsci’s work are more relevant today than ever. Transformist systems are increasingly operative but are also weakened by their existential impact, creating the kind of “dual consciousness” Gramsci discussed. One could easily discuss the idea of “organic intellectuals” in relation to the Zapatistas, and the need for “raising the intellectual level” in relation to crude and pro-bourgeois anti-“crime” ideologies in the west. The anti-capitalist movement has mounted a “politico-military” challenge to bourgeois power, but it has not yet developed the means to draw ever-growing strata of the population into the nascent new society it is constructing, at least not in the west. In some parts of the world, rejection of imperialist-led capitalist globalisation is widespread, but is articulated to reactionary capitalistic and authoritarian ideologies such as political Islam, or to forms of populism which rely on leaders to carry out transformations on behalf of the masses. One needs now more than ever to raise the question of constructing new ways of thinking and acting which can escape the bourgeois trap on a psychological and cognitive as well as a social level and which can provide the basis for lasting changes which destroy capitalist oppression.

To this end, I would emphasise to Gramscians the following:

· A need to aspire to organicity: analyse popular discourse, pursue critique of common sense and attempt to build new movements of resistance, and avoid as far as possible a reduction to the role of the “traditional intellectual”;

· Revolutionary politics: a need to seek wide-ranging autonomy from bourgeois ways of thinking and acting, and not to remain trapped within these ways of thinking and acting by accepting core aspects of bourgeois politics or philosophy;

· The importance of discourse analysis for understanding the degrees of ruling-class hegemony and the emergence of resistance;

· The need to examine in detail the politics of everyday life and processes of social subjectification, as opposed to formal elite politics and visible social structures. This might include, for instance, ethnographic and qualitative research into experiences of capitalist society. Gramsci’s own research agenda stresses the importance of analysing language, common sense, religion, folklore and so on (SPN 323), and ascertaining the content of common sense through an analysis of the successes of various ideological currents and the popularity and unpopularity of cultural products (SCW 418);

· A need to resist transformist pressures, whether these are exercised through the patronage networks of elite politics or the conformity-inducing pressures of the norms of particular disciplines. Gramscian analysis should be normatively engaged and passionate, and should be careful not to eliminate the element of normative assessment from concepts such as “hegemony”.

In relation to all these points, I am emphasising the need for Gramscianism to
become in a sense more “Gramscian”: to engage thoroughly and actively with problems in everyday life and popular discourse, and to pursue a “war of position” aimed at the demolition of ruling-class ideology. Therefore, Gramscianism must become far more ambitious than it is today, and far more prepared to go beyond the role of yet another explanatory perspective within political theory and/or international relations. Gramscian and neo-Gramscian authors have interpreted the world in various ways which draw extensively on the work of Gramsci. The point, however, is to change it, and to change it, the challenge to bourgeois beliefs must run more deeply, more broadly and more thoroughly.


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SPN: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
FSPN: Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks
SCW: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings
SPW1: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920


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